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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Guided discovery hike


By Ranger Steve Mueller

Brad Slaughter, from Michigan Natural Features Inventory, will be at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Drive, to lead a walk on September 19, 2015, from 1:30 to 4 p.m. Dennis Dunlap will be leading a part on mushrooms and Ranger Steve will contribute regarding ecological relationships. Come have an enjoyable time learning with family members and friends.

Mark calendars to explore the sanctuary with the Michigan Botanical Club that is hosting the discovery hike. Park at V&V Nursery and we will depart on the walk at 1:30. We appreciate them hosting parking.

The ecology walk will examine mushrooms and plant identifications, and their associations with birds, insects, mammals, amphibians and more. The 61-acre sanctuary includes “the big woods,” field/shrubland, wetland forest, stream and ponds. Trails traverse wetland over two bridges that cross Little Cedar Creek and upland habitats. We will examine plants with a 10 Co-efficient of Conservatism. That almost always indicates plants restricted to an undisturbed/pre-settlement remnant.

Come see what might be the largest American Chestnut of your life time. One of the sanctuary’s chestnuts has a diameter of 3 feet. We found a young two-foot tall chestnut so the large tree is reproducing. There is at least one other large chestnut.

Recently a mink crossed the driveway and a weasel was seen twice during mid July. Mink and weasels usually stay hidden. A Great Blue Heron and Green Heron are often seen. Pileated Woodpeckers are working the trees. There are always new discoveries every time one ventures into nature niches and most are related to plant communities. This guided walk is free. Donations to support the sanctuary management are welcome. This will be wonderful opportunity to become familiar with the Michigan Botanical Club. They welcome new faces to enjoy the outdoors with them.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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American Chestnut


By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Benefits of the American chestnut tree were important for building United States society but a disease, unknowingly imported across the ocean, has mostly eliminated benefits. This happened to elm trees when Dutch elm disease was imported. Recently this occurred when the Emerald Ash Borer beetle was imported in 2002. Our livelihoods, economy, and landscape ecosystem functions are dependent on preventing exotic species from becoming established in native nature niches.

The rapidly growing chestnut was highly valued as a durable wood. Important uses included tool handles, furniture, doors, plywood, poles, fencing, railroad tires, and tannin. It had little shrinkage, minimal warping and good gluing qualities. The tree provided fruit that was roasted and sold in markets.

American chestnut trees (Castanea dentata) were a co-dominant species in the oak-hickory-chestnut forest that extended from Maine to Alabama and from the Atlantic Ocean to Michigan. Now the forest is referred to as oak-hickory. Southeast Michigan was the western range limit for the chestnut. Individuals at the edge of their range are considered ecologically important because they seem to offer more hope for adaptive genetic change. Fringe individuals might be better able to survive in new and changing environments. Their DNA might provide what is necessary to help the species survive in a changing world provided the living conditions do not change too rapidly.

Introducing new diseases that a species has never experienced is often devastating. It is a major reason Native American populations died when diseases like small pox were introduced by Europeans to America. Disease introduction to the American chestnut caused it to disappear from most of the landscape and ceased its function as an important ecological contributor in the eastern deciduous forest.

Fortunately, there were individuals that survived for some reason in outlying areas of the species range. The reason for survival has not been clearly determined. One factor could be fringe range individuals might have genetically variability that helps survival. Natural abundance ended in southeast Michigan but individuals lived farther west and north in Michigan. I have seen American chestnuts in Saginaw, Grand Traverse, and Kent Counties as well as many other counties. It is especially considered a rare sighting to find a large chestnut because few survive the disease to reach large size.

A fungus blight (Endothia parasitica) introduced from eastern Asia in the early 1900’s arrived in imported exotic chestnut tree species and devastated the ecosystem. The blight affected countless species beside humans that used the American chestnut trees for survival. We worry about diseases like Ebola and a variety of diseases that might challenge human survival. Diseases that challenge the survival of chestnuts, elms, and ashes also have great ecological significance on biodiversity. Other species like Purple Loosestrife, Garlic Mustard, and Phragmites crowd native species and eliminate them from healthy nature niche communities.

Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary is home to a large reproducing American chestnut that has a diameter of three feet. Hope continues that a disease resistant variety might be able to help the species reclaim its place the Eastern Deciduous Forest.

Help species survive by planting native species to help them and associated animals thrive where you live. Remove invasive exotic species. Encourage landscape nurseries to avoid selling species that crowd out native species when they escape the garden or yard. There are non-native species suitable for the garden and yard that are not invasive. Invasive species are harmful to society’s economy, livelihood, and functional ecosystems. Nurseries sell products to make a profit and choose stock that customers purchase. You determine the biodiversity we pass on the future generations by what you purchase and plant and whether your yard is maintained to encourage native species.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.


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Sky Fire

Nature-Niche-Ranger-Steve-Head-ShotBy Ranger Steve Mueller


We each have the privilege of being born during a special time. The events surrounding our personal birth vary and add spice to ones personal life history. I was born during the most spectacular meteor shower of the year.

The Perseids Meteor Shower provides a fiery light show to mark my birthday or so it’s fun to believe. Of course scientific evidence does not demonstrate such a relationship but we can each believe what we desire despite evidence to the contrary. We tend to place our own lives at the center of the universe and we like to think all that happens revolves around us.

When we take time to examine our place in the great scheme of things, we discover we are not the most important in the universe even though we tend to think we are. When we live well, we find we can be important to others and that we can improve the lives for all around us. We can be a shooting star that brightens the lives of others or we can stay focused on our own perceived self-importance and self-interest.

Imagine the light from shooting stars during the Perseids Meteor Shower as shimmering light reflecting a person’s good deed done for another or someone’s soul traversing into the great beyond. We can create stories that enthrall our imaginations, pleasure, and desired beliefs. Such stories move our hearts and spirits in ways that science does not and make for the best and most appealing “Hallmark” stories.

Science, however, provides a more accurate account of how nature and its processes work. Such explanations have their own charm and lead to great discoveries. If it were not for scientific discoveries, we would not have recently received pictures of the surface of Pluto. Scientific discoveries from the space program have also improved our daily lives here on Earth’s surface.

The reason the Perseids Meteor Shower occurs in mid August has to do with our planet traveling around the sun once a year. When it arrives at the same location in mid August each year, the Earth collides with debris left by the comet when it passed. Comets, like planets, have an orbit around the sun. Their orbits are greater than planetary orbits and often require hundreds or thousands of years to make a trip around the sun.

Where the comet’s path crosses Earth’s orbit, debris is left in space. When the Earth passes where the comet traveled, it collides with debris left by the comet. Earth’s gravitation pulls debris toward the Earth causing it to heat, glow and vaporize on its descent through the atmosphere. The average size of a “shooting star” is five ten thousandths of an ounce (.0005). That is about the size of a sand grain. We see the flash of light as it vaporizes 50 to 75 miles above the Earth’s surface.

Meteors or “shooting stars” can be seen any night of the year but more occur when Earth passes where more debris is present. The peak of the Perseids shower occurs between August 11 and 13 in celebration of my birthday. Everything in the universe revolves around my life or maybe it’s around your life.

Well science is not personal but that does not stop us from making things personal, fun, and meaningful in ways that enrich our existence. Take time to enjoy all aspects of nature niches from soil particles in your yard to specks of dust in outer space. Our limited presence in time is as fleeting as a shooting star’s when compared with the five billion year Earth history. Take advantage of the wonder and joy in each fleeting moment of life.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Where are the Orioles?

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Unexpectedly, male Baltimore Orioles disappeared from a reader’s feeder by late July. Females increased. He (Egan) wondered what caused the change. He thought maybe this year’s young resemble females and that would account for the apparent increase in females. He was correct about the immature birds.

During breeding season, more colorful males help with rearing the nestlings. They bring insects and continue to drink nectar at feeders and eat oranges. With seasonal progression, behavior changes.

Orioles begin migrating south in late July and August, but some will be present throughout August. Changes in male behavior make them less conspicuous after young fledge the nest. Adult males become more solitary and feeding locations change. They feed on protein rich insects hidden in the upper canopy of trees. We need to search high tree foliage where it is difficult to view birds.

Orioles feed heavily on caterpillars and take fuzzy hairy ones that many birds avoid. They also eat beetles that become abundant mid to late in summer. They eat a native plant fruit that becomes ripe during late July and August. It is good reason to use little or no herbicides and pesticides.

Baltimore Orioles, like most songbirds, have altricial young, meaning they hatch blind and naked. They require complete parental care that includes frequent feeding and heat from the parent. The young cannot regulate body temperature for days after hatching. They easily become hypothermic or hyperthermic and die from cold or heat exposure if the adult does not sit on them or shelter from heat. Altricial birds are one of the few vertebrate animals that do not have cute babies.

Scientists study orioles to understand evolutionary origins of species. Physical structure (morphology) including feathers, bones, and organs are used along with behavior natural history (ethology) of feeding, nest building, migration, and mate selection. In the 1970’s, the western Bullock’s Oriole was combined with Baltimore Oriole and the two were considered one species called the Northern Oriole. If you have an older bird field guide, it might list the local species as Northern Oriole.

Bullock’s and Baltimore Orioles where found to interbreed when they came together where humans connected tree habitat by planting trees across mid-America. That caused us to determine they were one species because their offspring could survive and reproduce fertile viable young, unlike clearly separate species like the horse and donkey that produce infertile offspring called mules. Later studies demonstrated that the two birds do not normally interbreed and ethological behaviors keep their genes isolated. Near the turn of the 21st century, the advent of genetic DNA sequencing demonstrated distinct differences and additional ethological studies resulted in the two bird populations being separated again. Science is self-correcting as continued research provides additional evidence. Many species demonstrate close relatedness (missing links).

Greater depth studies of morphology (physical structure), behavior, natural history, and genetic sequencing help scientists develop phylogenetic trees (cladigrams), better known to most of us as genealogy history charts. For general human use, we go to geneology.com. but to discover species relationships, scientists use a larger body of evidence. The result has been the discovery of species connectedness often referred to as “missing links” supporting evidence for evolution. Studies have become valuable for understanding evolutionary history of genetic immunology and advanced medical applications. Recently my column described how cardio glycosides from milkweed are sequestered in Monarchs and the chemical has been used to save human lives when used to correct irregular heat beat. Nature niches have relationships refined through evolutionary adaptation. There are never ending opportunities for discovery. Have fun observing unique relationships among organisms in your yard.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Citizen Science Butterfly Count


By Ranger Steve Mueller


On July 12, area citizens gathered to count butterflies on the Rogue River Butterfly Count. The previous nature niche article explained how butterfly surveys might save human lives by monitoring population trends for species useful in medical discoveries.

Community members are encouraged to join on the counts to learn butterflies and their association with local nature niche habitats. The counts are fun ways to get outside, enjoy nature, and learn from those knowledgeable about butterflies. The information gathered on counts has broader human health benefits explained previously.

On this year’s Rogue River count, we saw 35 species (Table 1). If you did not join on the count, consider participating next year. Join the West Michigan Butterfly Association for $5 to stay connected (www.graud.org/wmba.html). If exploring wild areas is not your style, allow your yard to support native plants that attract butterflies. Native species of violets support a variety of fritillaries, legumes support sulphur butterflies, sedges and grasses support skippers, and mustards support whites. Some species have very specific host needs while others can use a variety of plant species. Ornamental plants have limited value for supporting healthy local nature niches. Ask local nurseries if they sell native genotype plants when you select plants for your yard. Patronize nurseries that have native genotype species for sale. We use both native and ornamental species in landscaping. Find a healthy balance.

At Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, we have seen 62 species of butterflies. That is more than one third of all the butterfly species known to Michigan. Your yard can be a haven for mammals, birds, amphibians, and insects if you allow native plants to thrive.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319. 616-696-1753.

Download the results here: RogueRiverCt Sheet1.pdf

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Human Health and Insect Surveys


OUT-Nature-niche-Swamp-milkweed-monarchSome people might wonder why the Monarch butterfly is currently proposed for Federal Endangered Species status. Monarch numbers have declined significantly during this new millennium and there are several contributing factors. One concern is the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO). GMO crops have been genetically altered to be herbicide resistant so more chemicals can be used on crops, allowing higher yield to support our growing human population.

It is difficult for farmers to purchase seeds that are not genetically modified. The increased use of chemicals in farm fields has eliminated many of the milkweeds that Monarch butterflies require to successfully migrate from Mexico to Michigan.

Lincoln Brower conducted studies in the 1960’s to gain understanding about how Monarchs acquire chemicals from milkweeds that protect them from bird predators. Milkweeds developed chemical protections through natural selection that protected them from most insects trying to feed on them. Most insects cannot feed on milkweeds because of the plant’s poisons. Monarchs, milkweeds bugs, milkweed longhorned beetles and some others have developed the ability to feed on the plant and have developed ways to isolate the poisons without being killed.

Brower fed Monarchs to blue jays and the birds became ill, vomited, and had an irregular heartbeat. The birds learned to not eat Monarchs or other orange insects.

Later other scientists studied cardiac glucocides ingested by monarch’s from the milkweeds to learn how they affect the heart. It was discovered that if a person has an irregular heartbeat, the chemical could be used to help correct the heartbeat. After learning its medical value, the chemical has been manufactured in the laboratory and used to save human lives.

If monarchs were allowed to become extinct before the study, we might never have made the life saving discovery. Many, if not most, medicines first come from studying plants, fungi, and other organisms to understand their role in nature niches. Scientists do not just throw chemicals together and test them to see how they might be useful. They look to the natural world.

Butterfly and other insect surveys conducted by citizen scientists aid in monitoring the abundance and distribution of insects. Similar surveys for birds, mammals, and plants help us understand trends for various species populations. Most species have not been studied for their value to humans. The value of many has been lost to extinction and will never reveal their life saving secrets. What if the chemical in milkweeds and Monarchs was lost before the life saving use was discovered?

The recent local butterfly survey conducted by citizens like you has value for fun and learning about local nature niche relationships. It also is important in tracking population changes. The information can be used to preserve species that save human lives. Some people require a known human use before they are willing to support saving a species from extinction. It is impossible to know the value of each species. It is estimated that between five and fifteen million species live on Earth and possibly 30 million. We have named about 1.5 million so far and, for most of those, we know little about their value for us.

Insects that live in your yard might be human life saving organisms provided we do not eliminate them with pesticide and herbicide use. You have life saving control that is important for future generations. If we eliminate species, their value disappears with them. Encourage people to live in harmony with nature rather than trying to dominate it.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net, or mail Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319. 616-696-1753.

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Allegan Butterfly Count


By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Conditions were excellent for the Allegan State Game Area Butterfly Count. Clear skies with temperatures between 70 and 81 degrees F provide butterflies with good flying weather. Butterfly emergence for many species is later than expected due to this year’s weather conditions. People joined with the West Michigan Butterfly Association (WMBA) to learn identification and to enjoy wild areas. We carpooled and even encountered other people looking for butterflies. What joy!

The Newaygo Count in the Manistee National Forest, Rogue River State Game Area Count, Grand River Count in Ottawa County, and the Muskegon State Game Area Count held by WMBA will occur during July. The Allegan count was held on July 5, and species sighted are listed in Table 1. The results from the Rogue River SGA Count will be published in a nature niche column, but visit the WMBA Web Site for results from all our counts. A $5 membership sent to our treasurer will keep you connected for club activities (address on web site) www.graud.org/wmba.html.

2105 Allegan SGA Butterlfy Count No.


Eastern Tiger Swallowtail 2

Spicebush Swallowtail 1

Whites & Sulphurs

Cabbage White 7

Clouded Sulphur 6

Blues and Hairstreaks

American Copper 2

Bog Copper 6

Coral Hairstreak 18

Edward’s Hairstreak 693

Banded Hairstreak 25

Striped Hairstreak 2

Summer Azure 2

Brushfooted Butterflies

American Snout 1

Great Spangled Fritillary 17

Aphrodite Fritillary 21

Pearl Crescent 2

Gray Comma 3

Mourning Cloak 1

Red Admiral 53

Red-spotted Purple 2

Hackberry Emperor 6

Tawny Emperor 2

Eyed Brown 1

Appalachian Brown 1


European Skipper 8

Northern Broken Dash 5

Delaware Skipper 3

Mulberry Wing 1

Broad-winged Skipper 1

Dion 1

Black Dash 1

Dun Skipper 2

Total Adult Individuals 896

Early Life Stages

Spicebush Swallowtail larva on Sassafras 1

Edward’s Hairstreak eggs oak 5

Karner Blue larva 4

Monarch larva on milkweed 1

Total Species 30

Allegan SGA Butterfly Count

Time 0900 – 1715 hrs (1 party)

AM 100% sunshine

PM 100% sunshine

70 – 81 F

Wind stilll to light breeze for short period in early afternoon

Total Party hours 8.0 hrs

Total Party Miles on foot 3.3 miles

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319, or call 616-696-1753.

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Wildlife recognition

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


The average child can recognize 1,000 corporation logos but is unable to identify 10 plants and animals native to the region where they live. I have seen statements similar to this repeatedly during the past few years from research surveys. I have not tried to check the validity but it does raise concern. Kids get exposure to tremendous advertising. The question I pose is whether they get tremendous exposure by parents and grandparents to plants and animals that live in their neighborhood.

Check with your own children, grandchildren, neighborhood kids, and others to see how much exposure they get on their own or from you. It is likely that those reading this column expose youth to nature. Those children probably recognize plants and animals better than most kids do.

Those that do not read the nature niche columns probably associate with youth that are more likely to reflect the statistical normal. I suspect I am “preaching to the choir” with my writings. That is valuable because many readers tell me they learn new desired information. How to reach others is a dilemma that requires parents, grandparents, and friends to solve. Most people learn best by doing.

When my daughters were very young, we lived five miles east of Manistique, in the Upper Peninsula. Our home was one mile from Lake Michigan. We regularly walked a gravel road to a County Park on the shore. Along the way, we explored everything of interest and spent time discussing tree species and associated animals. Before the girls learned to talk, they clearly soaked up great knowledge.

We pulled a wagon so the girls could ride when they became tired of walking. At the beach, we found much to explore. Shorebirds ran on the wet sand and found food morsels by staying close to the coming and ebbing of waves. Gulls and terns were common. Occasionally we would see a Bald Eagle.

We stood on flat rocks surrounded by water. We each selected a special vantage point to search the water for life. When we did not desire to look for wild creatures, the kids played on the slide, swing and teeter-totter. It was joyous time outdoors where we built a meaningful relationship with our kids.

Some memories of experiences the girls had from ages one to four years might be recalled. Most are lost in the hidden recesses of their brains but I am confident they are still there and they played a vital role in their development.

At home, we played a form a concentration. Using picture cards of birds and mammals, I placed them face down on the floor and would ask for an animal. When they selected correctly, they got to put it in their pile. With each picture of a bird or mammal, I would make a sound and motion to associate with the animal making it more fun and interesting.

Before they could talk, they could recognize over 100 birds and mammals. The girls could recognize many tree species we saw on our walk to Lake Michigan. On camping trips, they were great observers and saw things I missed. Maybe this was because their eyes were closer to the ground but I think they simply learned to observe creatures that shared the world with them. They developed good observation skills.

It was fun to play wildlife concentration, walk to Lake Michigan, and explore outdoors. Of course, they would tire and we found other things to do when we were growing weary. Today they appreciate the multitude of life and try to live lives that promote sustaining a healthy environment for humans and other creatures. I still expose them to nature. Help children exceed the norm for wildlife recognition and keep it fun. The best learning comes from one on one experiences between adult and child.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433 or call 616-696-1753.

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Glowing Sparks on Sleeping Bag

OUT-Nature-niche-Ranger-Steve-Head-ShotBoy scouts hiked two miles to Mr. Cook’s farm woodlot to set up camp. First, selecting a proper tent site was important. Then collecting adequate firewood to cook dinner was essential and additional wood was gathered for an evening campfire.

Once the essentials of camp construction like making a latrine were completed, games, exploration, and mischief followed. We practiced tying knots and completed other camp skill activities for rank advancement or merit badges.

In those days, we packed in heavy food. It predated most freeze-dried food. The food was good. After removing apple cores, we packed cinnamon sugar in the center and cooked them in aluminum foil on the fire. We made meat, potato, and vegetable stews.

We explored Mr. Cook’s farm woodlot for animal signs hoping to find deer, bears, and cougars. Well the bears and cougars were not present. The deer were good at avoiding us. Squirrels would chatter and scold us from high in tree branches.

Desirable insects were fun to observe. We found it necessary to wear insect repellant and lightweight long sleeve shirts and pants for protection from biting insects. When we were in sunny areas, the mosquito problems were minor but deer flies could be bad in season. We learned Native American practices to fool the flies. We cut a bracken fern and wore it so the stem held the frond over our head causing the flies to circle the leaf-like frond instead of circling our head.

Scout and Native American skills helped us live in harmony with nature niches. We discussed some or these around the campfire after dark and, of course, told scary stories to put others on edge before turning in for the night.

Some scouts sneaked away during the campfire and collected sparks. After collecting one or two hundred, they went to my dad’s tent, opened the flap and released the sparks inside. They quickly closed the flap and returned to the fire.

After bed check, my dad as scout leader went to his tent expecting a good night’s sleep outdoors. When he opened his tent, he saw glowing embers covering his sleeping bag. Immediate shock and thoughts of getting a water bucket surfaced until he realized the embers were lightning bugs or fireflies.

They were not flies at all. Fireflies are actually beetles that have highly efficient light production, with little heat production. Our incandescent light bulbs are inefficient and produce excessive heat. New style light bulbs will save energy and money without the excessive heat production like the firefly light. They are more expensive but you will probably save enough money within a year to offset replacing the old incandescent bulbs and it will also lower your harmful carbon imprint.

Once dad determined the blinking embers were insects, he realized the scouts pulled a good joke on him. Interestingly, where I grew up the Saginaw area, we had lightning bugs (fireflies) that glowed amber red. Most places, like where we live now, have green glowing fireflies. It is a mystery that I still do not understand. Maybe scouts today will become scientists of the future that explain this mystery. There is so much to discover and learn.

I became an official “Girl Scout” leader when my girls were of age and enjoyed learning with them. Find ways to enjoy the outdoors often with your kids and grandkids.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433 or call 616-696-1753.

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Sunscreen in plants

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A red pigment called anthocyanin has been considered a sunscreen that protects plants from becoming sunburned, much like the sunscreens we use to protect us, from ultraviolet radiation (UV).

Look at newly emerging leaves from buds and notice the red color of the delicate tissues that have not yet “hardened.” When leaves expand from the bud, they are somewhat like a water balloon. They fill with water but the plant cannot build the necessary support tissues that rapidly. Feel newly expanded leaves to notice how delicate they are. The cellular tissues remain thin for days.

The leaves of trees and shrubs expand rapidly but it takes much longer to reinforce cells with cellulose and other strengthening tissues. The first line of defense to protect delicate tissues from UV radiation would reasonably be found in the protective outer cell layer called the epidermis. This layer lacks the green chlorophylls that make leaves green and it also has a low concentration of anthocyanin. Anthocyanin is more abundant deeper in leaf tissues called palisade cells, where vertical rows of cells stand next to each other and circulate green chloroplasts to capture sun energy. It also is more abundant in photosynthetic cells beneath the palisade cells know as spongy mesophyll cells. Studies are trying to understand the mystery UV protection.

Think of the palisade cells like a series of farm silos packed closely together to fill a checkerboard. They are tall and slim. Imagine each silo filled with water and beach balls. The balls represent the chloroplasts that form a moving loop inside silo like an internal Ferris wheel. The chloroplasts are like seats on the Ferris wheel following others as they rise to the top and circulate back down to bottom. The spongy mesophyll cells below the palisade cells are more globular in water filled spaces between cells.

UV can cause damage to DNA in the cells of the two layers, just like damage can cause cancer in our skin tissues. Anthocyanin filters radiation to varying degrees and helps protect plants. Melanin in our skin serves that function and is built when our skin is exposed to UV and makes us tan.

Shade tolerant plants in the understory of forests are protected from intense sun radiation by the forest canopy. When trees are clear cut, the ground plants are suddenly exposed to UV and respond. They produce large quantities of anthocyanin and become intensely red. Unfortunately, it is not adequate to save them and most succumb to sunburn. Plants adapted to tolerate open sunny nature niches colonize the new sunny habitat. When you see a clear-cut forest, stop to notice how red the ground plants become when exposed.

Explore with family members to notice new growth on dogwood shrubs, maples, sassafras, oaks, and cherries. Choose any tree or shrub and feel how soft and delicate new tissues are and that they are pigmented red until they harden and feel sturdy. It is universal that the new tissues concentrate anthocyanin. The water-soluble pigment has other functions also but it plays a role as protective sunscreen. Phenolic acids in corn and other crops are UV-absorbing compounds so anthocyanin is not the only sunscreen. More mysteries are waiting discovery.

Declining levels of ozone in the upper atmosphere have generated concern because more UV radiation is entering the lower atmosphere where we live. In our latitudes, UV has risen by 3 to 5 percent in recent decades. Closer to the poles it has risen 6 to 8 percent. Increased skin cancer in people is occurring. People are not the only species impacted by UV radiation but we tend to think we are isolated from nature niches. That is not now nature works. What happens to plants happens to people. We do not live alone and sustainable care for other life is essential for our own health. Food and forest productivity depend on how we care for ozone layers.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.

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